Europe's death-penalty elitism.
Death in Venice

By JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL
Issue date: 07.31.00
Post date: 07.20.00

 

You seldom hear conservatives note, disapprovingly, that "America is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have X." It's not hard to figure out why, since X usually involves European (or Canadian or Japanese) big government. But liberals sometimes imagine that America's peculiar lack of, say, nationalized health care, tough gun control, decent child care, widespread mass transport, or substantial arts funding is a sign of political underdevelopment. And so they bemoan America's uniqueness.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.Particularly on the death penalty, and particularly now. The old taunt--"The only other industrialized country with the death penalty is South Africa" (recently amended to include "and now even they've abolished it")--has been hurled with particular force in recent weeks. The flood of capital punishment horror stories, combined with partial or full recantations by conservative luminaries George Will and Pat Robertson, has left anti-death-penalty liberals more convinced than ever that, on this issue at least, American political culture is inferior to its counterparts across the Atlantic.

If only it were that simple. It's true that all of America's G-7 partners, save Japan, have abolished capital punishment, but the reason isn't, as death-penalty opponents usually assume, that their populations eschew vengeance. In fact, opinion polls show that Europeans and Canadians crave executions almost as much as their American counterparts do. It's just that their politicians don't listen to them. In other words, if these countries' political cultures are morally superior to America's, it's because they're less democratic.

Seen through American eyes, Canada seems almost comically nonviolent. And it's true that Ottawa administered its last execution in 1962 and formally abolished capital punishment for civilians in the mid-'70s (a ban on military executions came in 1998). But public support for the death penalty runs only slightly lower in Canada than in the United States: polls consistently show that between 60 percent and 70 percent of Canadians want it reinstated.

Differences in the way survey questions are framed complicate direct comparisons with Europe. (European polls sometimes pose the question in terms of the death penalty for terrorism, for genocide, for depraved sexual crimes, and so forth.) But, even if you ask the death-penalty question in the more restricted sense that Americans generally understand it--"Do you support the death penalty for aggravated murder?"--you find very few European countries where the public clearly opposes it, and there are a number where support is very strong. In Britain, the world headquarters of Amnesty International, opinion polls have shown that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population favors the death penalty--about the same as in the United States. In Italy, which has led the international fight against capital punishment for much of the last decade, roughly half the population wants it reinstated. In France, clear majorities continued to back the death penalty long after it was abolished in 1981; only last year did a poll finally show that less than 50 percent wanted it restored. There is barely a country in Europe where the death penalty was abolished in response to public opinion rather than in spite of it.

How could this be? In a few cases, the reason is constitutional: Germany's and Italy's postwar constitutions abolished capital punishment outright, thus placing the issue effectively beyond public reach. Another factor is the centripetal pressure created by European integration, as cornerstone EU states like France and Germany compel smaller newcomers to adopt "European" norms. Still another factor is the lack of some equivalent to American-style federalism, which in this country allows ardently pro-death-penalty regions like the South to proceed without regard for opinion in other parts of the country.

Differences between European parliamentary government and the American separation-of-powers system also play a role. Parliamentary government may provide voters with more ideological variety, but it is much more resistant to political upstarts, outsiders, and the single-issue politics on which the death penalty thrives. In parliamentary systems, people tend to vote for parties, not individuals; and party committees choose which candidates stand for election. As a result, parties are less influenced by the odd new impulses that now and again bubble up from the electorate. In countries like Britain and France, so long as elite opinion remains sufficiently united (which, in the case of the death penalty, it has), public support cannot easily translate into legislative action. Since American candidates are largely independent and self-selected, they serve as a much more direct conduit between raw public opinion and actual political action.

Basically, then, Europe doesn't have the death penalty because its political systems are less democratic, or at least more insulated from populist impulses, than the U.S. government. And elites know it. Referring to France, a recent article in the UNESCO Courier noted that "action by courageous political leaders has been needed to overcome local public opinion that has remained mostly in favour of the death penalty." When a 1997 poll showed that 49 percent of Swedes wanted the death penalty reinstated, the country's justice minister told a reporter: "They don't really want the death penalty; they are objecting to the increasing violence. I see this as a call to politicians and the justice system to do more."

An American attorney general--or any American politician, for that matter--could never get away with such condescension toward the public, at least not for attribution. Pundits and rival politicians would slam him, and, on most issues, liberals would be first in line. After all, liberals are rightly attached to the idea that they speak for the "little guy," the "working family," or, in Al Gore's recent phraseology, "the people, not the powerful." But, all over the industrialized world, it turns out that the men and women on the street like the death penalty. It's just that in Europe and Canada elites have exercised a kind of noblesse oblige. They've chosen a more civilized and humane political order over a fully popular and participatory one. When American liberals invoke Europe's abolition of the death penalty, that's the choice they're essentially endorsing, whether they know it or not. It's a perfectly defensible position--but it might not go over that well on "Crossfire."


JOSHUA MICAH MARSHALL is the Washington editor of The American Prospect.

 


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